As galleries postpone show after show and museums are going so far as to sell off blue chip works just to stay afloat, it is clear the effects of the pandemic are not letting up on the art world. That is, unless you’re looking to auctions in the Old Master market.
Sotheby’s has recently announced two big prizes that will be available to buyers at the Masters Week Auction this January in New York City. Those works, specifically, are a rare religious painting by Rembrandt titled Abraham and the Angels estimated at $20 to $30 million, and a portrait by Sandro Botticelli titled Young Man Holding a Roundel which should fetch in excess of $80 million. The price for the latter would make it one of the most expensive artworks ever sold at auction.
While it’s difficult to imagine that a single artwork could, in the case of the Botticelli, be worth more than the GDP of multiple countries around the globe, the venerable auction house is certain the price is both right, and fair… for the market.
“Very often, not everyone has heard of the artists behind these Old Masters painting that go on to sell for millions at auction,” says Christopher Apostle, Senior Vice President Head of Department Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s. “But Botticelli and Rembrandt are different. And both of these works tick all the boxes for what they are.”
As his role suggests, Apostle is Sotheby’s point person for all things Old Masters. That includes working to authenticate art, research and build out their history and aesthetic merits, and determine value. “Every piece that comes in gets its own bespoke treatment,” he says.
There are, however, overriding criteria that act as lodestars for Apostle and his team to identify a magic dollar amount for auction. Understanding that process can help even the most amateur art historian or casual auction tracker to better appreciate the sky-high values estimated for these masterpieces.
The three primary factors at play can be categorized as the subjective, the objective, and the external.
Subjectively analyzing an artwork is, in some ways, the most freeform. Here, Apostle and his team are approaching the aesthetic qualities of a piece.
“Art itself is subjective,” he says, “and there are pieces that you just know are really, really beautiful. And then there’s the other side of the spectrum where something in the piece isn’t working for you, and then every point in between those extremes.”
The objective qualities that concern Apostle are far more delimited. The physical condition of a piece belongs here, as well as how it stacks up against the rest of the artist’s corpus, its provenance, and overall rarity.
That’s not to suggest there is no room for discoveries or innovation. “I don’t want to sound like I’m Indiana Jones, but sometimes it’s a bit of a treasure hunt,” Apostle says. For surprising discoveries, he points to a painting by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, which was rediscovered unexpectedly in 2002 and then sold for more than $76 million.
Last are external factors––that is, other sales to comp out a price. This can be a difficult proposition considering there can be decades between the sale of two works by the same Old Master. This differs greatly from other markets, like for contemporary works, and can leave Apostle and his team with relatively few data points.
Apostle is confident that his prices will bear out. The Rembrandt, for instance, is one of the painter’s rare religious scenes and is similarly styled to another of his paintings that sold for $18 million. The Botticelli, however, bears Apostle’s highest-ever suggested estimate and derives from blue chip works by the likes of Francis Bacon, Jean Michel Basquiat and Vincent van Gogh.
“There seems to be an internal logic. Very few sales have left me perplexed about what an artwork sold for and why. After a while, you understand why prices are good and it’s because they so often either meet or don’t meet a lot of these overriding criteria. Sometime a piece makes a really big price unexpectedly and it’s like, wow, OK! If that happens once I might take it a little bit into account, but it also might totally change the market,” Apostle says.
While Sotheby’s gears up for the most anticipated sale since quarantine began, be sure to pore over these masterpieces and see if you can guess just how much each will sell for on the auction block.